Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Length: 2hr 10m
In Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new drama set in the fashion circles of 1950s London, penetrating glares replace angry shouting, and putting too much butter on asparagus replaces physical violence. But beware of being too hasty; this description suggests a film utterly failing in tone and tension. Instead, it delivers an intimate drama sharply focused on only three characters trying to reconcile their power and relationships within an environment of sophisticated social norms and practices.
Largely set in London, Phantom Thread shows us the world of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his last film). Not only able to introduce himself without even the slightest smirk about his name, he is also impeccably stylish and sophisticated (as to be expected). Reynolds meets waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) in a northern English restaurant, where he asks her out to dinner after an exchange of gazes, order, and maybe even genuine feelings. And as Alma enters the life of Reynolds, we do so as well.
What could have been a short-term affair in Woodcock’s northern weekend estate becomes a permanent relationship back in London. She moves into his large townhouse, from which he also operates his luxury fashion brand. What first stands out about Reynolds is his almost hauntingly excessive daily routine. Even though the film is set in the world of high fashion it neither treats the topic with superficiality nor with a multitude of technical detail. Anderson shows us Woodcock as an artist whose work is considered more than just connecting fabric and enveloping someone’s body; his clothes empower the people wearing them. The film suggests we do the same. Given the level of professionalism and personality indicated to be necessary to create Woodcock’s dresses, that inference is entirely justified. Watching Woodcock measuring Alma is reminiscent of a doctor examining his patient or an engineer scrutinising an engine. Focussing on every detail of her body thereby becomes more an expedition of material than flesh that belongs to a person.
A routine more rigorous than the protocol of the royal family sustains this permanent brilliance of craftsmanship. For instance, eating at breakfast must not disturb Reynolds, or his day will be ruined. Alma will repeatedly interfere with this regime, not only posing the question how compulsive his behaviour is, but also exposing how much assistance the people around Reynolds provide. Without them, maintaining it would be impossible, as would be his creativity. Anderson deploys a theme about the process of creativity in this film, something also recently depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!. But instead of a slow descend into the grotesque, Phantom Thread treats creativity as delicate cyclical force that can be suspended by any unforeseen, and just mildly inconvenient event interfering with Woodcock’s daily life. Hence the routine, and Alma is such an interference. Relationships are always interferences, even though often voluntary ones. But Alma wants to be more than Reynolds’s muse. Not only does that lead to a clash between her and Reynolds, but also involves his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is dealing with managerial aspects of the house. This develops into a power play, allowing all actors to shine whilst maintaining a level of great subtlety. What other films would show with exaggerated shouting, Phantom Thread exposes with intense glares. Daniel Day-Lewis in particular stands out, rendering even reading the newspaper the object of a worthwhile watching experience.
Once again Paul Thomas Anderson has proved to be the master of subtle films depicting dysfunctional and asymmetric relationships. Not a single frame in this film is obsolete; everything has a purpose. The cinematography supports the theme by lingering on our character like a veil, exclusively. Shots of landscapes have been omitted, interiors are shown mostly indirectly, with them at the centre. Jonny Greenwood’s score adds another level of intimacy to this. What one is left with in the end is the feeling of having taken a small portion out of a well whose depth cannot be detected. Reynolds would keep draining it.